Aug 24,2001

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How to Win Friends and Influence Voters

The secret to successful stadium referendums




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by Neil deMause

For those of you unable to tear yourselves away from the gripping presidential race -- "This race is hot enough to peel house paint!" remarked Dan Rather at one point, evidently channeling the spirit of Red Barber -- long enough to read the sports pages, you should know that stadium referendums passed in both Houston and Phoenix on Tuesday night. Repeat: the Arizona Cardinals will remain in Arizona. Cardinals fans, you can breathe easy now. (Yes, both of you.)

The two votes were notable in that each reversed a similar referendum held just last year. In November, 1999, Houston rejected a $160 million arena for the Rockets and Comets. Three months earlier, a $385 million Mesa, Arizona, stadium plan to lure the Cards from nearby Phoenix was defeated by a 60%-40% margin. This year, the dollar figures were even higher -- $195 million in Houston, $1.8 billion for a stadium-plus-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink project in Phoenix -- but the vote totals shifted enough that the Houston arena initiative won in a landslide and the Phoenix stadium referendum snuck through by a few thousand votes.

This is the first time in four years that stadiums have swept the board in the November elections, and no doubt we'll soon be hit by a wave of what-it-all-means analysis in which pundits will credit the pro-stadium votes to renewed enthusiasm for sports, to the inevitability of change in our postindustrial global marketplace, or to Moochie Norris's good showing in the October debates.

It's fun to kibitz elections that way, as if they were World Series games and we were deconstructing Bobby Valentine's pinch-hitting strategy. But in real life, there's one factor that trumps all others in stadium votes. I'll give you a hint: its initials are Dave Cash and Don Money.

The playbook

Sure, it's not all about filthy lucre. There's a whole playbook to getting a new stadium -- in our book Field of Schemes, Joanna Cagan and I termed it "The Art of the Steal" -- and owners Bill Bidwell (Cards) and Les Alexander (Rockets and Comets) called all the usual numbers this time around. Both teams made threats to move in recent weeks, and while the likelihood of a San Antonio Cardinals or (especially) Louisville Rockets may have been remote, it was no doubt good for a few votes come November 7.

There was also much talk of the need for "competitiveness," with one Houston Chronicle columnist dutifully insisting that only a new arena could bring Alexander a title -- his teams's six NBA and WNBA championships over the past seven years apparently notwithstanding.

(This is nowhere near the record for gall on the subject, by the way. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- I almost called him "Yankee Mayor," which would probably be more appropriate -- declared in May of 1998 that there was no way the Yankees could compete with the likes of the Orioles without a new stadium.)

But these are the same arguments that the teams made last year, when they were trounced at the polls. The real difference this year was less in what the stadium advocates said than in what they spent. Last year, Houston's stadium boosters raised about five times as much as their opponents; this year, they upped their spending to $1.5 million, versus just $100,000 by opponents. In Arizona, while the pro-stadium Arizona Wins campaign was pulling in $1.7 million in funds through the end of October, the opposition collected a grand total of $215. Outspent nearly 10,000-to-1, stadium foes watched as a 15-point lead in September dwindled to nothing by election day, and the stadium passed by a whisker.

Next page: Deep pockets and deep holes



Respond: sjeditor@sportsjones.com

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